SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLY (1996)
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
One of the most ambitious cult classics in the history of Japanese cinema!
Director: Shunji Iwai
Cast: Ayumi Itô, Hiroshi Mikami, Chara, Yôsuke Eguchi, Andy Hui Chi-On, Atsurô Watabe
Related films: Love Letter, All About Lily Chou-Chou, Hana and Alice, Dead or Alive
Seeing the bigger picture
Subjectively speaking, Swallowtail Butterfly needed a few replays to be properly appreciated. The first time around it was hard to look past the fact that the Japanese actors were speaking large parts of their dialogue in broken English. The film is set in the near future, in a time when Japanese, Chinese and English languages have developed into several creolizations. This excuses the terrible pronunciation to a certain extent, but not the stale acting.
Virtually all «spoken English» makes for unconvincing dialogue, which disrupts the sense of realism. That being said, when re-watching the film for the second and third time - being able to put the language issues aside and focus on Iwai’s bigger picture (no pun intended) - a wonderfully heartfelt story seeps through the cracks and wins you over.
As if the intricate language-design wasn’t enough, the atmosphere, settings, ensemble cast, costumes and script are like nothing you have ever seen. Swallowtail Butterfly is hailed by many as the director’s finest moment. It is definitely his most ambitious project, and probably also his best.
Iwai has proven to be a proficient director of both traditional melodramas and experimental films. Swallowtail Butterfly definitely leans towards experimental film-making, but hidden beneath its scruffy exterior lies a strong melodrama. As usual, Iwai’s cinematography and sound design is all over the place, which is to say an eclectic mix of handheld camera work and a bold score.
To top it off the film sports one of the biggest international casts to ever be seen in any Japanese film. Iwai’s previous experimental films always had a tendency to put form before content, resulting in strong stories being disrupted by artsy style and design. This is not the case with Swallowtail Butterfly. Yes, Iwai is more experimental than ever before, but the style and story flows together in perfect symbiosis.
Between the lines
The innovative style is but one thing that makes this film so special. The story and character development are profoundly deep and gives way for countless angles of interpretation and analysis. The postmodern, dystopian landscape of the multicultural shantytown reeks of sociopolitical undertones.
Japan has a long history of shutting out most outsiders. Even though there does not appear to be any Korean residents in Swallowtail’s Yen Town, one can’t help but to think about the Zainichi (slang for Koreans in Japan) issues that Japan has been struggling with since the 1980’s. As such the Chinese immigrants in Swallowtail Butterfly might be interpreted as an analogy for the wave of Korean immigrants that flowed into Japan in the eighties.
Unique in style and political undertones as the film might be, the main attraction is still the gripping story and the character chemistry. The story of Ageha is the center of attention. She is a young girl whose mother one day turns up dead. As a result she is sold as a commodity to a shantytown streetwalker. The prostitute takes any valuables she can find and leaves Ageha with another young prostitute. From there on we witness the growing up of Ageha and how she proves to be stronger than anyone could have predicted.
The lowly community might seem filthy and opportunistic, but the characters prove to be multifaceted, and often not as cynical as we are first led to believe. Granted, a lot of Yen Town’s citizens spend most of their days concocting schemes to lure cash out of innocent office workers. On the other hand, the hoodlums never hurt anyone and are simply trying to get by with the hand they are dealt in life.
Due to the free flow of opium, the intrigues are tightened when the Triads (Chinese mafia) suddenly invade the lives of the shantytown population. In the midst of this intrusion a high-ranking triad mobster abuses Ageha’s matron sister, and ends up dead (by accident) in the process. Not the ideal situation for two young girls indeed. As the plot thickens the characters continue to grow.
Swallowtail Butterfly is built on a heap of layers that could easily be discussed and analyzed at length for pages up and pages down. To reiterate, the film is unlike anything you have ever seen, for better or for worse. If taken for what it is, you will get an extraordinary experience that will stay with you long after the end credits roll.
Give it time, let it set, and the characters, their lives and the fantastic journey they go through will drag you in. Swallowtail is an art house film for sure, but it's got indefinite depth, one of a kind design, and a character ensemble for the books. It goes without saying that it has earned its underground reputation as well as the JCA stamp of approval.
Lori Hitchcock, Indiana University, USA: ... language and multiculturalism in Swallowtail ...
Midnight Eye: Swallowtail Butterfly
Unfortunately, there simply does not exist any decent releases of Swallowtail Butterfly. Several DVD- and Blu-ray-versions can be found online, but be advised: These vary greatly in quality, some are without subtitles, and keep regions in mind. eBay or Yesasia are probably your best bets.